An Irishman's Diary

Thu, Jul 12, 2012, 01:00

It will be 70 years this weekend since a 21-year-old pilot met his premature end just off the coast of northern France. The youngest wing commander in the history of Britain’s RAF, he had been a text-book hero in life. And even in death, he could have been a character from an English boys’ comic.

His Spitfire fatally damaged by machine-gun fire over Le Touquet, he flew slowly out to sea, talking calmly on the radio. Eight miles from the coast, the plane was seen to ditch into the waves, and sank immediately. The pilot’s last reported words, moments earlier, had been: “This is it, chaps.” Contrary to what you might conclude from that, however, the words were spoken in a Dublin accent. The pilot was “Paddy” Finucane, as he was by then generally known. But his real first name was Brendan, and he had been born in Rathmines before the family migrated eastwards to Sandymount, and later further east, to Britain, when Brendan was 16.

If he lived in England long enough to say “chaps” at the end of sentences, he had not lost either his south Dublin patois, nor a sense of his origins, in becoming one of the RAF’s greatest fighter pilots.

Along with its trademark bulls-eye logo, the plane he died in had a large shamrock painted on its side, as it had had while shooting down more than 30 German aircraft. At the height of Finucane’s living celebrity, models of his Spitfire, shamrock included, could be bought on the streets of London.

There was a certain irony to his heroism in Britain’s cause. Although Finucane’s mother was English, his father was an Irish republican who fought alongside Éamon de Valera during Easter Week. The results of that struggle were still reverberating when Brendan was born in 1920.

In fact, while still in a pram, the future war hero received his baptism of fire one day in Rathmines, when he and his mother had to take cover behind a hedge during a burst of machine gun fire near Portobello Bridge.

Two decades later, now exiled in England, Finucane Snr disagreed with his former commander’s policy of war-time neutrality. But he was still said to have found it “rather funny” when all his sons joined the British defence forces.

IN A MOVING RTÉ radio documentary a few years back, Madeleine O’Rourke followed the return to Ireland after more than 60 years of a younger Finucane sibling, Kevin. He visited the family homes in Rathmines and Sandymount: the latter paid for, he said, by a prize his mother won in the Hospital Sweepstakes.

He also recalled a more ominous incident which had been handed down in family lore. The young Brendan had once needed an appendix operation, apparently, during which time he was hospitalised next to a man who toured Ireland telling fortunes.

At Mrs Finucane’s insistence, and despite obvious reluctance, the man was prevailed upon to foretell the boy’s future. Which, Kevin Finucane said, included the prediction that Brendan would “die a watery death by the age of 21”.

The memory lingered sufficiently that on his 21st birthday, assuming himself to have outlived the furtune-teller’s grim vision, Brendan rang another brother to say “I’ve made it”.

That was October 1941, by which time the Battle of Britain was safely behind him. But being an RAF pilot was not still not a career that promised longevity.

The Germans now had superior planes and Finucane’s meteoric rise was in part a result of high mortality rates. He was himself seriously wounded once, managing what a colleague described as a “wizard” landing, despite having bits of fuselage stuck in him.

Still 21, he was appointed wing commander in June 1942. In a recorded interview a few months earlier, he joked that “I’ve not been shot down – touch wood – and have only once been badly shot up, if that doesn’t sound too Irish”. Unfortunately, his luck was to run out very soon after his promotion, on July 15th.

The famous last words notwithstanding, how he died is still debated. He was too near the ground to bail out. But rather than a farewell, his “this is it, chaps” may just have been the preliminary to an attempted sea landing.

He was known, however, to dislike being strapped tightly while flying. And one theory is that he forgot to lock his harness before impact, so that when the plane hit the water he was pitched violently forward and knocked out.

In any case, a telegram with bad news soon arrived at the Finucane home. As remembered by Kevin, the “telegram boy” was crying when he delivered it. Knowing she had lost a son, Mrs Finucane’s only question was: “Which one is it?” Former school-friends, including RTÉ’s long-time soccer correspondent Philip Green, recalled Finucane as someone who had excelled at most things, from maths to sport. RAF colleagues remembered a natural leader, someone they would have followed anywhere.

His flight log-book is now a prize exhibit at the National Museum in Collins Barracks, Dublin.

Yet Finucane was also said to have been an unassuming man who disliked triumphalism, once removing symbols somebody had added to his plane to represent the number of “kills” it had made. He had a girlfriend at the time of his death, and spoke of going to Australia with her after the war. The plan was that he would work in “accountancy” or maybe “auditing”. At any rate, he told an interviewer: “I’d like a job with figures”.

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